Monday, 12 May 2008

Return of the Vamp

After a year in which fan boy filmmakers have sought to glorify bad taste cinema Emma J. Lennox turns her critical eye on the chick habits of Tarantino, Rodriguez et al and ponders the redefinition of the femme fatale.

Standing lithely with an M4 Carbine assault rifle attached to the bloody stump of her leg, Planet Terror's poster girl, Cherry Darling, is a striking, disturbing, slighty hilarious and completely ridiculous icon. The image is laughable because of it's extremity; male desire has fused together sex and violence and turned it into a mythic mermaid of war; semi- woman, semi-automatic. But where does Cherry's right leg stand in the lexicon of femme fatale killers and feminism? A recent resurgence of B movie schlock faire, led by fan boys; Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and even Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, have resurrected the gory body of bad taste films to a mainstream audience. Cinemas are crawling with all new zombies and vampires, sucking up screen time and feeding off audience titillation. But horror movies are often out dated in feminist eyes because of the graphic violence and sexualised anti-female abuse. As the genre continues to be redefined by contemporary filmmakers, the meatiest roles are heading to empowered female fighters. Step in, or rather hobble in, leading lady Cherry, a stripper by trade and now certified zombie killer. But she's not alone, also on tour in recent festival circuits are the girls of Jay Lee's Zombie Strippers and a crusader in the unexpected form of prissy teenager, Dawn; star of Mitchell Lichtenstein's Teeth.

With blood, guts and male genitals flying around willy nilly, women have the killing floor for the first time since the glory days of the femme fatale. By using divisive sexuality and gun willpower, stars of the 40s Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis distorted the accepted 'norm' of femininity. Yet it was silent horror films, decades earlier, that first engendered the femme fatale. The mythical characters in Zombie Strippers, Grindhouse and in particular Teeth all have roots in this male nightmare of conflicted desire; the vampiress. A Fool There Was (1915) is credited as the first vampire film and caused controversy for the title card of the vampiress (Theda Bara) “Kiss me, my fool!”. The shortened term 'vamps,' predated the Noir inspired femme fatale and was synonymous with beautiful but deadly women with atypical ideologies. That the beginnings of female cinematic identity came from the horror genre says more than enough about the discriminatory masculine industry of Hollywood.

Today Vamps are no less sexually charged and lethal but their motivations have changed. Lichtenstein's debut feature has a particularly complex Vamp with conflicting issues of identity and morality. The white picket fence and apple pie setting suggest a light teen drama centred on Dawn (Jess Wexler) and the beast lurking around the corner is pre marital sex, but much like Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976) the best is still to come. Dawn, who is captain of the high school abstinence club, believes she has found true love when she meets Tobey (Hale Appleman) at an abstinence meeting, but she’s afraid she won’t be able to resist her carnal desires. Sexual tension reaches souring levels as the giddy couple go swimming in a scenic lake and romp through waterfalls. When Tobey pins her down and goes too far, Dawn discovers the whereabouts of the eponymous vengeful teeth and exactly what they do.

Dawn's vaginal mutations bring to life the age old male fear of the beautiful/perilous allure of sirens, and her imminent sexual awakening is bad news for her local admirers. Yet Dawn's castration frenzy is only in defense of lascivious behavior in crude but direct comment on the objectification of the female form. Men and boys throw themselves on the irresistible yet wholesome Dawn and she punishes them for their impatience, aggression, and in Tobey's case, attempted rape. The conclusion shows Dawn as the antihero; she's come to terms with her freakish new identity and leaves home to become a kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for bastards, cads and rapists. The male victim violence creates humorous leg crossing moments but as we wait for the bite, there is no confusion with eroticising brutality. The stomach churning thump and blood squirt is at best satire, at worst glorified gore, but Lichtenstein steers clear of horror pornography.

The same can't be said of the bitchy, back stabbing, envy ridden pole dancers of Zombie Strippers, who find a touch of the zombie virus does wonders for their grip and slide action. The disadvantages of death; peeling skin, oozing exposed wounds, etc, turns out to be an enormous turn on for the clientèle who go wild for the new improved super powers of the undead women. This leads to 'eye of the beholder' questions of beauty for the seven strippers who quickly begin to conform to the idea of zombie-ism. The women are satirised through their unattractive attitudes and their rivalry is portrayed as ugly as their rotting flesh. Competitors Kat (Jenna Jameson) and Jeanie (Shamron Moore) battle it out with ever decaying bodies to the baying crowds though ultimately when you're dead, there are no winners. As in Teeth, it's the males that are subject to much of the goriest violence including decapitations and mutilations, but through it all the men, pictured here as imbecilic zombie fodder, happily sacrifice their lives for the chance of a one on one lapdance. The fetishism of the blood stained beauties is countered by effeminate strip club owner Ian Essko (Mr. Kruegur himself, Robert Englund) who even before infection finds the girls disgusting and disease ridden but likes the money making potential of their new gift. Zombie Strippers' humour derives from Lee's ironic script which takes the fantastical myth of zombies and makes it conform to the human sins of greed, jealousy and lust. Not to be beaten by societal ills, however, the zombie virus is destroyed in the end with good old army bullets and bloodshed.

Although horror has always been a male genre made by men for male consumption, Zombie Strippers and Teeth are interesting evolutions of the form. Zombie Strippers objectifies women, and aims the film primarily at the male gaze but counters it with character depth and a post modern ironic tone. Equally Teeth can play to both genders because at a basic level the narrative is about relationships and respect. However, debate surrounding Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse venture is complicated by its distribution. Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Deathproof make up a double bill originally intended to be viewed like the 70s exploitation films of America's seedy back street theatres. The retro cool of the recreations include poor editing, 'missing reel' notices, scratchy picture quality, and musical scores lifted from other soundtracks. Fake trailers also added flavour; Machette, Werewolf Women of the SS, Don't! and Thanksgiving were made by notable filmmakers and slasher fans; Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright. Altogether it is a cult event, to be enjoyed by large crowds who could appreciate the parody of an outdated aesthetic. Yet due to the poor reception in the USA, Europe and the rest of the world's distribution was slashed in half. The fun trailers were cut and the feature films were re-edited and released two months apart, which unfortunately made the singular films more offensive than the intended grindhouse pastiche.

Whilst discussing his short film trailer Thanksgiving, Eli Roth commented that the film ratings board were concerned about the shocking violence and explicit sexual content but “once they saw it with all the bad splices and the distress and scratches they were fine with it.” Crucially, the extra layer of the faux presentation allows the audience to get in on the big joke but breaking apart the showcase focus shifts to narrative and characters. Therefore Deathproof and Planet Terror were severed from their original intention and released for general consumption alongside Spiderman 3 and Shrek the Third. The cult aesthetic necessary for the reinventions involve not only the grimy, mutilated film negative but the 'in the know' audience.

Though now defunct in America, original grindhouse theatres weren't without value. Chambara films were inspired by Japanese Manga and as well as featuring explicit sex and grisly swordplay would focus on an antihero seeking revenge. This still has direct influence with contemporary Asian horror films and was inspiration for Tarantino's 2003 epic Kill Bill. Counter culture genres such as Blaxsploitation movies also started in the back alleys before taking on the mainstream and empowering disenfranchised communities. But the suspect portrayal of the suffering and victimised woman has been a mainstay of exploitation films, it is only through the criticism of feminist writers and theorists that we can now laugh at the poor taste in which they were made. So as a strong female protagonist, peg legged Cherry and her zombie killing destiny validates the resurrection of grindhouse, her grotesque image is filtered through our modern sensibilities, which otherwise would leave Cherry a tragic figure in need of disability allowance. But as Tarantino discovered, whilst feminists picketed the cinema steps of his Deathproof UK tour; without the right context, irony dissipates like a vampiress in sunlight. And without the Vamp, Rodriguez, Tarantino, Lee and Lichtenstein would disappear too.

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